It’s Simple Physics


Author
Angela Buck

Published
July 10, 2017


Working in various Higher Education systems has allowed me to learn several key things about organizational politics. Mostly it is that is an ever-morphing process that never has a definitive end. There’s a certain savvy required for the semi-volatile political climate of many organizations. I will say upfront that I am a huge sponge for emotions and a very relationship-oriented person, so organizational politics often affect me very deeply. I am also conflict-averse and constantly seek to keep things in harmony as best as possible. I put my biases out there because I inwardly stress out about this very topic even if I present a cool facade. I’m here to share some insights I’ve gained over time so that others who are like me, could maybe freak out a little less when they encounter this situation in the field.

One of the most meaningful things I learned in graduate school was that organizational politics was a thing. It was very hard for me to come to terms with this idea because I naively thought everyone working at higher education institutions were there to transform students’ lives. Impacting students has constantly been at the center of my approach, so I just assumed that was the case for everyone. When I came into situations where there were things that had to be done that students would flat out hate, I realized there was so much more to the picture than what appears at face value. Institutions are immensely complex places with many moving parts, and the student experience is only one piece of the puzzle. For every person with strengths as a Hall Director, there had to be a person with accounting prowess. I had to learn that the hard way because I was all hyped up on Student Development theory and “best practices” around organizational structure that I set out to change the world of higher education immediately. I quickly found out that’s not how things work and that I had to have a colossal dose of patience to see changes come to life because it takes time, relationship building, and continuous advocacy to see the needle move an inch. It got to the point where I was so frustrated that I called my parents to tell them I was going to quit my program and come home. My dad said something very important to me that I still carry with to this day. He said, “It’s simple physics. An object at rest will stay at rest and an object in motion will stay in motion. You are the object in motion and the people around you are at rest. You have to find that outside force that disrupts the balance of this motion.” In that moment, it all clicked for me, and to this day Newton’s First Law of Motion has informed the work that I do. I was that graduate student who was in motion while the professionals around me were at rest. Mind you -- there were some incredible people doing incredible work, it was just that they embedded themselves in certain systems that I could not yet see or comprehend. This continued to inform my work into the first few years as a new professional. I had to learn the ways I was the object in motion trying to disrupt the homeostasis of the institution. 

Now that I am entering my fifth year as a professional, I am starting to notice the moments where I am the object at rest because I have found a certain stride in the system. I initially freak out in those moments because I feel like I’m losing my identity as  “change agent,” but then I remember how much time and patience it takes to see things begin to transform. I also recognize the value in seeing things play out and slowing down the process in order to do it right the first time. I’m not as inclined to just overhaul something immediately, but rather to test it out, pilot it, and do my due diligence with all the stakeholders before blazing a new trail. I can absolutely push the boundaries in small yet meaningful ways that set others on the right path for success without disrupting the whole situation. I have been able to pass along these insights to emerging professionals or graduate students as a mindset around dealing with politics, and I think it well received. As I have moved “up” within the organizational structure, I’ve started to see how little I actually know about dealing with politics, but it is humbling in the best way. Some advice I was given by a seasoned professional was this: “Don’t ever learn information from just one source.” That has served me well so far because I have learned to take everyone’s opinions and ideas with a grain of salt and figure out how it all fits into a bigger context. It can be confusing on most days because there’s a lot of conflicting information bouncing around, but I figure it will help me narrow down my opinions and determine the best path forward. 

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Angela Buck is the Interim Director for Inclusion & Multicultural Engagement at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR. You can find her on Twitter at @angelaadelle. 

Angela Buck is the Interim Director for Inclusion & Multicultural Engagement at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR. You can find her on Twitter at @angelaadelle. 


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